The Ups and Downs of Practicing Yoga With Arthritis

I’ve been working for Arthritis-health for a few years now, and one thing I see doctors recommend over and over for people with arthritis—almost any type of arthritis—is to practice yoga.

This advice sounds nice in theory, but in reality, even the healthiest of us can struggle in yoga class. So I’ve always wondered, how do people with moderate to severe arthritis practice yoga? If your wrists are locked up from rheumatoid arthritis, how you get into downward dog? If your knees are swollen to the size of cantaloupe, how do you curl yourself into child’s pose?


Modify those pretzel-twisting poses

People with moderate to severe arthritis often work with their instructors to modify traditional yoga poses. For example, they might sit in chairs instead of sitting or kneeling on the floor. During balancing poses, students can steady themselves by resting a hand on the back of a chair or by leaning on a wall.

See Exercising with Arthritis

Stick with it

The key for many people seems to be consistency and routine. Get up and go to class, even on the days you don’t want to—maybe especially on the days you don’t want to.

I have to confess, this sounds a bit boring. Who wants to go to a yoga class 3 times a week and sit in a chair? But many experienced teachers and people with arthritis are adamant: over time, progress can be made. That stiff wrist will start to rotate, and those swollen knees will begin to flex.

Watch: Video: Should I Exercise Through Joint Pain?

5 tips to help you get started

Here are a few tips if you are thinking about practicing yoga:

Consult your health care provider
A doctor or physical therapist can tell you what poses, if any, to avoid.

See Arthritis Treatment Specialists

Chose your instructor wisely
Some yoga instructors are more knowledgeable than others. Ask around and get recommendations for an instructor who is experienced in working with people who have your condition, or people who also have significantly limited range of motion.

Consider customizing
If you need to modify most poses, you may want to do a customized series of yoga poses at home or take a yoga class tailored to people of similar physical abilities.

Expect variety
Just because you couldn’t do a pose last week doesn’t mean you can’t do it this week, and vice versa.

Heed warning signs
If a pose seems dangerous, skip it or ask the teacher how you can modify the pose. Similarly, if a pose is painful—not just challenging or uncomfortable—ease up or stop. You’re there to get better, not create new injuries!

With the right instructor and patience, a dedicated yoga practice can pay big dividends.

Learn more:

Shoulder Stretches

Knee Stretches

Jennifer Flynn worked as a Senior Editor at Veritas Health. She worked with physicians to develop original, comprehensive, and unbiased health content. Jennifer specialized in content related to arthritis, joint injuries, chronic disease, and diet. She has more than 15 years of medical and health writing experience.